Since late 2007, I have made work structured around Timon of Athens, the only of Shakespeare’s plays not produced in his own lifetime. The play was abandoned by Shakespeare and nearly abandoned by subsequent Shakespeare scholarship. However, I’ve found that I prefer making work that inhabits an abandoned cultural space because it provides the artistic conditions that I like.
First, it allows me to make work that is not a testament to my subjectivity alone. In this case, I respond to the prompt provided by the list of characters from the play itself. Secondly, it allows me to manage heterogeneity under the canopy of one idea. I am greedy in that I want a lot of artistic experiences, for which I do not apologize. Lastly, the “worst” play by the most well-known English playwright provides an uneven platform from which to begin working. I prefer this condition because it’s a combination of both good and bad, relevant to modern time but not limited by it, created by me but not solely from me.
Since starting the project, I have been making unique bodies of work for every character in the play, beginning with the minor characters. Thus far I’ve introduced the Mistresses, Flattering Lords, Masquers, Chorus, and Old Athenian. In early 2011, I decided that the next character would be Apemantus, the “churlish philosopher” who I had been considering for some time. Since Apemantus wields his devastating wit in public throughout the play, I decided that the pieces for Apemantus should be performative. This was a big step for me, since my previous forays into performance had been limited.
Apemantus required this kind of attention. My assistants made oversized paper maché portrait heads of me to wear while I settled on a performance strategy: a repeated guitar rendition of the song Awful by the band Hole. It seemed a perfect fit, despite the fact that I could not read music and had never played an instrument. Fortunately, I was allowed to participate in a performance art festival at the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, NY in 2011. And thankfully, a long weekend with New York artist/guitarist Tucker Capparell taught me some basics, so that when my first performance of the Apemantus character began I had been playing guitar exactly three days.
Less than a week later I was scheduled to perform again as part of FLUX 2011, a performance art festival in Atlanta, Georgia. The performance was held on what turned out to be one of the windiest nights of the year. The combination of wind and drunk citizens made my eighth day of guitar playing a particular challenge.
In January 2012, my solo exhibition [Dramatis Personæ] opened at Saltworks gallery in Atlanta, GA. This was the first time the performance appeared within a gallery context. Awful Inside Saltworks was performed for two hours during the January 14, 2012 opening reception at the gallery. It was also the first time I hired another person to fully perform as me. That allowed me to be both artist and viewer in a manner that I had always experienced with painting, but never with performance.
From the beginning it seemed very important to me that the heads be used only one time. After each performance the heads are signed, dated, and retired from performance service. However, as I watched the growing accumulation of performance heads in the studio, I began to see them as an eccentric iteration of painting. I was then invited by artist and curator Jennifer Dudley to participate in an exhibition at Ramapo College gallery in New Jersey. The exhibition is called “From the Mezzanine,” based on a 1973 project by Bas Jan Ader. Here, I contributed the performance head re-configured as a wall painting. Seeing the head on the wall surprised me in that it was suddenly apparent to me the degree to which portraiture haunts the Timon of Athens project. The first character, the Mistresses, were essentially portraits. The Masquers and Old Athenian are also portraits of sorts. And now I’m left to wonder the degree to which the effigy of my own severed head continues this trajectory.
Craig Drennen is an artist living in Atlanta, GA. He shows with Samsøn gallery in Boston and Saltworks gallery in Atlanta. He teaches at Georgia State University and serves as dean of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Drennen is on the board of Art Papers magazine and serves as editorial adviser for BURNAWAY magazine. Since 2008 he has organized his studio practice around Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens.